Dismal High School Graduation Rates Violate Florida Constitution, Says ACLU Lawsuit

March 18, 2008 12:00 am

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Palm Beach County Reflects Disturbing National Crisis

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WEST PALM BEACH, FL — Charging that shamefully low high school graduation rates demonstrate a violation of students’ constitutional right to a high quality education, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a first-of-its-kind class action lawsuit today against the Palm Beach County School District. It is estimated that as many as one in three Palm Beach County students does not graduate on time with a regular diploma, a figure that is well below both the state and national averages. This case is the first legal challenge in the country that focuses on the issue of low graduation rates and that requires a school district to graduate more of its students.

“If Palm Beach County is not graduating a third or more of its students, it is by definition providing an inadequate education,” said Chris Hansen, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU. “Unfortunately, this is just one example of a larger disturbing trend of poor graduation rates across the country.”

The ACLU’s legal challenge, filed on behalf of parents and students in the district, charges that the Palm Beach County School District violates the state constitution’s declaration of the “fundamental value” of educating children and the right that free public education be “uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality.” The ACLU is not seeking additional funding or any specific remedial measures, only that the school district improve its graduation rates without pushing students out of the system. The lawsuit also seeks to put in place a uniform and reliable graduation rate calculation that accurately accounts for every student enrolled in Palm Beach County’s high schools. Currently, there are multiple, inconsistent graduation rate measures that are inaccurate and inflated.

In addition to low graduation rates among all students in Palm Beach County, there is a significant disparity between the graduation rates of African-American and Hispanic students and those of white students. For the past five years, the gap between black and white graduation rates has remained approximately 30 percentage points, while the gap between Hispanic and white graduation rates has been about 20 percentage points. According to the ACLU’s legal challenge, the stark difference in graduation rates along racial lines is evidence enough of the school district’s constitutional violations. The lawsuit, however, aims to improve the graduation rates for all students enrolled in Palm Beach County.

“A high quality education for every child is not a luxury, but a constitutional requirement,” said Muslima Lewis, Director of the ACLU of Florida’s Racial Justice Project. “The Palm Beach County School District must be held accountable for upholding the Florida constitutional mandate to make high quality education a reality for all students, regardless of age, race, special needs, ethnicity or gender. Students and teachers in Palm Beach County deserve an environment that ensures success, not failure — the District owes it to them and to our community.”

Graduation rates are not just a problem in Palm Beach, but throughout the country. However, there are school districts with similar demographics that perform substantially better, proving that Palm Beach, too, can do better. For example, in 2004, using a respected methodology developed by the Harvard Civil Rights Project and the Urban Institute, the schools systems in Maryland’s Baltimore and Montgomery counties and Virginia’s Fairfax County had graduation rates slightly above 80 percent, compared to only 56.1 percent in Palm Beach County. Accordingly, Palm Beach County’s low high school graduation rate and the disparity between the graduation rate of African-American and Hispanic students and that of white students cannot be attributed to socio-economic status, immigrant status or student transfers to private schools.

High school dropouts are far more likely than graduates to be unemployed, in prison and living in poverty. A recent independent study reported last week in the Washington Post showed that high school dropouts in the District of Columbia stand to lose $615 million in lifetime earnings compared to graduates. The study also found that the city would save more than $20 million in health care costs if D.C.’s high school dropouts graduated.

Attorneys in today’s case are Hansen, Vanita Gupta and Larry Schwartztol of the ACLU Racial Justice Program, Lewis of the ACLU of Florida, Deborah N. Archer of the New York Law School Racial Justice Project and cooperating attorney Ramona Hupp.

A copy of the legal complaint in this case is available at:

More information on the ACLU Racial Justice Program is available at: www.aclu.org/racialjustice/index.html

More information on the New York Law School Racial Justice Project is available at: www.nyls.edu/pages/5368.asp

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